When the Apostle Paul visited Athens and addressed their pagan philosophers in the Areopagus (“Mars Hill”), he said: “For as I passed along and observed the objects of your worship, I found also an altar with this inscription, ‘To the unknown god.’ What therefore you worship as unknown, this I proclaim to you.”
At the recent Bethlehem College & Seminary Pastors Conference I led a panel interviewing Joe Rigney and Don Carson. I asked Carson about this text being used to defend the notion that Christians and Muslims worship the same God.
Here was his response:
The argument that some have put forward is that Paul does not in that address say, “We’re worshipping entirely different gods here,” but, “What you ignorantly worship, that I declare to you.”
But put it in context. A text without a context becomes a pre-text for a proof-text.
When they are speaking of an “unknown god,” it’s in a polytheistic context, not a context of monotheism. And the reason why they have an altar to an unknown god is because they live their lives in fear with respect to what the various gods can do. You propitiate the gods with appropriate sacrifices so that you can have a fat baby or a safe trip to Rome or whatever it is you’re asking for. And there might be some god out there who’s really quite nasty tempered so you offer a sacrifice to him, too (or her, as the case may be—there were goddesses as well as gods).
None of that is relevant to what Paul is saying. Paul is not saying, “This particular god is the God that I’m talking about.”
And even if it were, it scarcely applies to the Muslim world, where the Muslims do not say, “We don’t really know much about God, why don’t you fill the content for us.” Allah is not to them an unknown god. He is very known. And when I converse with my most serious Muslims friends—and I have some—they resent the notion that Christians and Muslims worship the same God. They think it’s a terrible distortion for Christians to say things like that. They think it’s an abomination, in fact, because you actually believe things like God having a Son—things like that. In fact, one Muslim country, Malaysia, had made it illegal for Christians and Muslims to use the same word, Allah, for God.
So this use of Acts 17:23, ripped out of its context, reflects a sold-out commitment to a kind of muddle-headed Western notion of tolerance that is not thinking clearly about what Paul is saying in the context. He is saying that “what you ignorantly worship this I declare to you,” not because he is making an ontological statement of identity but because he is stressing their ignorance.
You can watch or listen to the whole hour-long discussion here, where we covered a number of topics (including voting for presidential candidates).